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A Parable-Caveat Emptor with Electric Space Heaters

Caveat emptor, buyer beware, is always a sound policy, especially these days. As the heating season draws nigh, many of us will look for ways to manage the energy bill and an oft considered option is the electric space heater. Claims surrounding “special” heaters with remarkable capabilities are bound to hit magazines, papers, and online soon.

To equip you to effectively evaluate the offers you’ll encounter, I am going to repurpose a parable.

The King’s New Electric Space Heater

Once upon a time, the king read that an amazing heater was available that would slash his castle’s heating costs by as much as 60% and would cost less than the royal coffee maker to operate. Plus it was very stylish featuring fine cabinetry by skilled artisans. “Accept no substitutes,” it continued, “ as all electric heaters are not the same.”

Now the king was wary of the claim. Once before, a dishonest tailor had sold him a set of very expensive and exclusive clothing. These were special; one of a kind, just for the king, clothes that only cultured people of the best breeding could see and appreciate. Anxious to be one of those select few, the king bought the clothes even though they did not exist.

The king was so proud of his new raiment that he held a parade to allow his subjects to admire them. All went well with many “oohs and aahs” until a child pointed out that the king was actually naked. Then everyone realized that the king had been swindled and everyone had bought into the lie.

Once bitten and twice shy, the king called his local cooperative where he found the answers he needed. All electric resistance heaters produce exactly the same amount of heat; 3,413 British thermal units (BTU) per hour for every kilowatt of electricity used. This is the same for electric baseboard heaters, infrared heaters, mobile cabinet electric heaters, and electric heaters built by authentic traditional craftsman.

He also found that while the royal coffee maker does indeed use 1600 watts of electricity versus the 1500 watts of the wonder heater, it ran for less than an hour compared to the 24 hours recommended for the heater.

Armed with the facts, the king went to a local merchant and purchased a much less expensive heater and enjoyed the same output. The money he saved went to a new clothing fund.

The moral of the story? If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is. All electric heaters are created equal – that’s the law of physics, or thermodynamics. It’s true that you can buy models with cool options like remote controls, really nice cabinetry, filters to sanitize air, digital readouts, and so on. But the fact remains that a $400 heater will produce the exact same heat output as a $40 alternative.

And, you cannot save as much energy as they claim. Cooperative research indicates it is closer to 10%. Even so, 10% is nothing to sneeze at. You can save money with an electric space heater by following these easy steps:

• Turn your thermostat back a few degrees.
• Close off rooms you do not use frequently if you have baseboard heat. Close louvers on hot water baseboard and turn back thermostats on electric baseboard units in those rooms.
• With forced air, close vents in unused rooms. Trusted contractors tell me closing doors may impact overall system balance so avoid doing that.
• Buy an inexpensive room heater that you can easily move from room to room.
• Only run it when you are in the room.

With your savings you can invest in some nice winter clothes.